(l to r) Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in ‘The Gentleman Caller.’ (Photo: Maria Baranova)
Tennessee Williams is seeing resurgence across New York City and Chicago this spring. The Morgan Library and Museum just concluded its “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing” exhibition, a compelling collection of materials that highlight Williams’ creative process during his prolific period from 1939 to 1957, when he wrote The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Classic Stage Company (in a co-production with Transport Group) is currently presenting a searing revival of Summer and Smoke (through May 20) while Chicago’s Raven Theatre offers a lush and emotionally resonant production of Suddenly Last Summer (through June 17) in repertory with The Gentlemen Caller, a new play by Philip Dawkins.
In a lucky stroke for the playwright, New York City’s Abingdon Theatre Company is simultaneously offering its own version of the play that imagines the sexually and artistically charged meetings between Williams and playwright William Inge (Bus Stop, Picnic). It’s an interesting proposition that achieves varying degrees of success. Both were attracted to men and struggled to live in an era long before gay Pride parades and rainbow flags. They also had creative temperaments that vacillated over the years as each wrestled his inner voice to create works that now stand among the most significant plays of the 20th century.
All of this brings us to William Inge’s (Daniel K. Isaac) basement apartment circa 1944, where Williams (Juan Francisco Villa), just prior to the premiere of The Glass Menagerie in Chicago, has come for an interview. Inge, yet to fully discover his playwright’s voice, is working as an arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times. Inge is a bundle of nerves, mostly because he’s heard rumblings of Williams’ homosexual tendencies and wants to get in his pants.
Inge displays an unclear admiration for the budding playwright who has yet to achieve measurable success. Dawkins’ script boldly attempts to capture the mid-century style, which he achieves with Williams’ witty repartee and sharp one-liners for which the writer was known. Inge, on the other hand, finds his voice more subtly as the play trudges on, which might have something to do with the copious amount of alcohol drunk, but why is he so enamored with Williams? — He hasn’t even read the play before the scheduled interview. It will be nine years (long after this play’s end) before Inge writes Picnic, but an inkling of its strapping drifter Hal Carter immerges from his mind as he describes to Williams his ideal man, “unearthly beautiful, god-like in his humanness.”
Such dramaturgical references are abundant in Dawkins’ play and offer compelling insights, particularly in Act II, which takes place on New Year’s Eve after The Glass Menagerie’s Chicago opening, which Williams describes as “ a HUGELY moderate success.” Inge pays a visit to Williams’ suite, now more deeply connected to the playwright having seen his work and keenly observes it’s not the character of Tom Wingfield that embodies Williams onstage, but that of his infirmed sister Laura, saying: “I thought that was clear. The fear of madness, the misunderstanding all the time, the societal pressures, the longing for companionship while craving solitude. It’s all there.”
But what’s missing in director Tony Speciale’s staging is chemistry between the two men and any sort of plot that pushes the action forward. The bond that brings them together — in part, due to living in a time when loving another man meant lurking in the shadows — feels like it’s on the page rather than the stage. Villa’s fleeting Southern drawl is an occasional distraction while Isaac’s uptight Inge warms as the evening wears on only to be diminished by a fit of over-the-top frantic staging at play’s end.
Sara C. Walsh’s set showcases various pieces of mid-century furniture, surrounded by towering stacks of scripts topped with warmly hued lamps. Discarded drafts are strewn about as if both men are destined to dig themselves out of a lifetime’s heap of narrative reflective of their inner struggles. The imagery is somewhat blatant but foretelling. As evidenced by this latest resurgence of their plays, Tennessee Williams and William Inge are dramatic forces that surpass the generation from which they came. Dawkins’ play pays decent homage to their works but ultimately left me craving the originals.
The Gentleman Caller
Abingdon Theatre Company
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through May 26
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.